Vikram Seth is a popular Indian novelist and poet. He is the author of the much-celebrated book “A Suitable Boy.”
Vikram Seth was born on Friday, 20 June 1952 (age 67 years; as in 2019) in Calcutta (now Kolkata). His zodiac sign is Gemini. He did his schooling from St. Michael’s High School, Patna, St. Xavier’s High School, Patna, Welham Boys’ School, Dehradun, and the Doon School in Dehradun. From the Doon School, he won a scholarship to Tonbridge School, England. At the age of 17, he went to live in England to attend Tonbridge, with his great uncle, Shanti Behari Seth who was a Dentist. At Tonbridge, he won another scholarship to the Oxford. He took his undergraduate degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Corpus Christi College, Oxford, England in 1975. He did his post-graduation from Stanford University, California in 1979. He was pursuing his PhD in Economics from Stanford University, but he abandoned his PhD in the middle to become a full-time writer.
Eye Colour: Black
Hair Colour: Black (semi-bald)
Family, Caste & Wife
Vikram Seth’s father, Prem Nath Seth was an executive of Bata Shoes and was nicknamed ‘Mr Shoe’ in Delhi. His mother, Leila Seth was the first female judge of the Delhi High Court and also the first woman Chief Justice of a state High Court in India.
He has a brother named Shantum (Buddhist Teacher), and a sister named Aradhana (Filmmaker & Scenographer).
In an interview, he has confessed that he was a bisexual. Outlook India He was once in a relationship with a woman named Gabrielle. He was also in a relationship with the French violinist named Philippe Honoré.
In 1980, he wrote his first book of poetry titled “Mappings.”
He has written eight books of poetry, which includes The Humble Administrator’s Garden (1985), All You Who Sleep Tonight (1990), and Three Chinese Poets (1992). His children’s book, Beastly Tales from Here and There (1992) consists of ten stories made into poetry. Vikram Seth has written three fictional novels, ‘The Golden Gate’ (1986) being the first one.
The other two are – ‘A Suitable Boy’ (1993), which drove him to limelight, and ‘An Equal Music’ (1999). He has also authored a travel book titled ‘From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet’ (1983), which is the account of his journey through Tibet, China, and Nepal. His second non-fiction work ‘Two Lives’ (2005) is a memoir of the marriage of his great uncle, Shanti Behari Seth and his German Jewish great aunt, Hennerle Gerda Caro. He was commissioned by the English National Opera to write a libretto based on the Greek legend ‘Arion and the Dolphin.’ The opera was performed for the first time in June 1994.
A sequel of “A Suitable Boy” – “A Suitable Girl” by Vikram Seth was announced in 2009 and is yet to be published.
Awards & Honours
- Padma Shri in 2007
- Pravasi Bharatiya Samman in 2005
- Order of the British Empire, Officer in 2001
- Crossword Book Award for ‘An Equal Music’ in 1999
- WH Smith Literary Award for ‘A Suitable Boy’ in 1994
- Commonwealth Writers Prize for ‘A Suitable Boy’ in 1994
- Sahitya Akademi Award for ‘The Golden Gate’ in 1988
- Commonwealth Poetry Prize (Asia) for ‘The Humble Administrator’s Garden’ in 1985
- Thomas Cook Travel Book Award for ‘From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet’ in 1983
- In 2006, Vikram became the leader of the campaign against Section 377 (unnatural sex) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which was recriminalized by the Supreme Court of India. He also slammed the Section 377 at a function organized at the Rashtrapati Bhawan by a TV Channel. Times of India
- In 2015, Vikram was trolled for accepting the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman from Jagdish Tytler back in 2005. Jagdish was accused of his alleged role in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. When the news of Jagdish’s involvement in the riots broke, Barkha Dutt asked whether Vikram would return his awards, which he had received from Jagdish. To which, Vikram replied- The Quint
I will also return my award if Sahitya Akademi remains mealy mouthed.”
- Food: Awadhi Biryani, Konkani Biryani, Hyderabadi Biryani, Chapli Kabab, Shamli Kabab
- Wine: Villa Maria
- Poet(s): Timothy Steele, Donald Davie
- Novelist(s): Jane Austen, George Eliot, R. K. Narayan
- Book: “Eugene Onegin” by Alexander Pushkin
- Musician(s): Franz Schubert, Johann Sebastian Bach
He has been shifting his base from London to Delhi and vice versa. He also owns a residence- Bemerton Rectory in Salisbury, England, which is the former house of the poet, George Herbert. The Guardian
- At the age of six, Vikram was sent to a boarding school, which resulted in him becoming an introvert. It affected his areas of interest too, as he started getting more interested in reading than being involved in group activities like sports. He recollects,
Incapable of looking people in the eye. The school was too far to visit, it took two days to get there from home, and I only saw my family for four months a year. When I was at home my father, was distant, a figure who came home tired and preoccupied. I had a terrible feeling of loneliness and isolation during my six years here. Sometimes at lights out, I wished I would never wake up. I was teased and bullied by my classmates and my seniors because of my interest in studies and reading, because of my lack of interest in games, because of my unwillingness to join gangs and groups.”
- When he was studying in Doon School, Dehradun, he used to edit the journal of the school called “The Doon School Weekly.”
- Seth started to write poetry when he was studying at Oxford. He condemns the poems he had written at that time; because he considers them as ‘incredibly unskillful.’ However, he continued to write and kept those poems to himself.
- He is an avid reader of poetry. While studying at Stanford, Vikram came across a translated work of Wang Wei, a Chinese poet. Wei’s work influenced Vikram to study Mandarin so that he could read the original work of the poet. Within a year, he became so fluent in the language that he was writing poetry in it. At the same time, he had also started to write poems in English seriously.
- Knowing that he needed counselling, he approached the professors from the English Department at Stanford and found a guru in the American poet, Timothy Steele, who was serving as the Jones Lecturer in poetry at Stanford during that time. Steele not only supported Vikram in poetry, but he also inculcated the urge of creativity in him. Timothy also used to give him an informal biweekly tutorial. According to Timothy,
The first thing that impresses you about Vikram is his immense and lively intelligence. It was always clear he was going to do something remarkable, but it wasn’t clear, when I first knew him, what direction his talent would take. Three or four muses were tugging jealously at him.”
- Vikram took a year leave from his studies for Wallace Stegner Fellowship (1977-78) in creative writing.
- The American Poet and writer of ‘Can Poetry Matter?’ Dana Gioia was also one of the contemporaries of Vikram. Together with Dana and Steele, Vikram’s natural inclination to write poetry bloomed, as his first poetry collection ‘Mappings’ came out in 1980; after he had rejoined the Economics Department at Stanford.
- ‘Mappings’ had rhyme and meter (a sound pattern), which was quite unfashionable at that time, due to which, the publishers refused to publish his book. It forced Vikram to become a publisher himself, and he started to force his family and friends to sell the copies of his books. It was later published by Writers Workshop in Calcutta.
- Until his book was published in 1980, Vikram had already left for China’s Nanjing University, for his doctoral research in the demography of Chinese villages. In China, Seth spent more time in reading Chinese poems than his research. This ultimately resulted in Vikram translating the works of Wang Wei, Du Fu, and Li Bai in the book “Three Chinese Poets,” which was published in 1992.
- Apart from Mandarin, he is also fluent in German, French, Urdu, Bengali, and Welsh.
- At the end of his stay in China, he managed to charm a policeman by singing “Awara Hoon,” a song from the film “Awara” (1951), a popular movie in China at that time; during an organised sight-seeing trip to China’s north-west province. The next day, his rendition of the song was talk of the police station, and he was given a rare permit to travel to Lhasa, the Tibetan capital in China’s autonomous land. In Tibet, he decided to hitchhike his way back to India through Tibet. He wrote the account of this journey in his book ‘From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet’ (1983), published by London publishers – Chatto and Windus.
- Back at Stanford, he read a translation of Alexander Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” by Charles Johnston. He was heavily obsessed with the book, and this obsession led him to write his first novel “The Golden Gate” (1986), which was published by Random House.
- He abandoned his PhD and returned to India in 1987 and began working on his novel “A Suitable Boy.”
- His love for music started in his childhood when he learned to play the flute and cello. He also learned to sing Khayal under late Pandit Amarnath for 10 years. However, his love for the western classical music came to him, when one of his friends at Oxford, took him to hear Bach. It was this passion for music that led him to write ‘An Equal Music’ (1999).
- After “The Golden Gate” (1986) was published, Vikram decided to have a British agent. He drew a shortlist of a few agencies and interviewed them one by one. He eventually chose Giles Gordon, a Scottish literary agent and writer. Recalling the interview, Gordon said-
Vikram sat at one end of a long table and began to grill us. It was quite incredible. He wanted to know our literary tastes, our views on poetry, our views on plays, which novelists we liked.”
- Vikram also worked as an editor at Stanford University Press from 1985 to 1986.
- He was also offered a job at the World Bank. His parents suggested him to work for five years at the bank, get a pension, and continue to write poetry and novels. Vikram told that his creativity would be finished and instead, he asked his parents to support him until his next book would be released.
- Vikram has not only mastered the art of assembling words in rhyme (poetry) but also the art of writing, i.e., calligraphy. He has learned calligraphy in Chinese and Arabic and can write in a number of scripts. He has also made three paintings with his association with Absolut Vodka, featuring their bottle.
- Vikram was born in a Hindu Family. However, when it comes to his religious and political ideas, Vikram says,
I have said it before and am saying it again that any Indian who demeans another Indian on the basis of the food he eats and on the basis of the god he prays to or on the basis of the person he loves is not worthy to be an Indian leader.”
- Reportedly, he earned around Rs. 2.3 crores for his bestselling novel “A Suitable Boy” and Rs. 13 crores for his novel “Two Lives.” The Telegraph